White House Watch: Trump says he has ‘right’ to remove Powell as Fed chairman, while Senate considers virus response legislation.
The NIH’s Tony Fauci Saturday repeated his warning that the coronavirus fatalities will continue to mount in the US in a briefing in which president Trump confirmed travel from the UK and Ireland is being banned Monday – and in which he claimed he has the “right” to remove the Federal Reserve chair.
Fauci, the foremost virus expert in government, told reporters the US “will see more suffering and death among the vulnerables” as the nation steels itself for the peak of infection he said is still in the uncertain future.
“If you look at the domestic cases they’re about 2,226,” Fauci said, “including the repatriations, 50 deaths; 532 new cases and nine new deaths, which means we have not reached our peak.”
Fauci was at the podium along with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, VP Mike Pence and other members of the Corona Virus Task Force with the notable exception of its chairman, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
With the virus now in 49 states, fatalities are accelerating as mass testing, including drive-through swabbing of throats in Walmart and other parking lots, is still just getting underway. Officials in New York City, where drive-throughs are taking place, stress an appointment by telephone is still needed.
The archdiocese of New York shut down all masses, Apple stores closed and Trump endorsed more closings of retail outlets.
“Frankly it’s good if they do it. I think what Apple did is fine,” he said.
In a jarring departure from virus updates, Trump answered a reporter’s question by repeating his criticism of the Fed for not lowering interest rates more and saying he could change the chairman if he wanted to.
The Fed had no immediate comment.
“Powell is not making it easy,” Trump said referring to the Fed chair. “Now, I have the right to remove. I’m not doing that. No, I’m not doing that.”
Trump added that he has the right “to also take him and put him in a regular position and put somebody else in charge and I haven’t made any decisions on that”.
Any such move would not necessarily remove Powell as chairman of the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee, for which post he is chosen by his Board peers.
Trump again urged the Fed to give short rates a minus sign. “Germany’s negative, others are negative and we’re paying higher interest rates and what I’d like to do is frankly refinance our debt,” he said. “We could refinance our debt very easily at a much lower rate. We have some tremendous opportunities right now.”
Powell, Canada’s central bank governor and even authorities in Europe where negative rates have been persistent have said they would prefer not to go below zero if they had a choice. In the US Friday, the Fed completed a $1.5 trillion injection in the money markets that had the effect of boosting rates somewhat.
“We hope the Federal Reserve will finally get on board and do what they should do,” Trump said.
After the president spoke Saturday, US stock futures were negative by between 0.7% and 1.4%.
The House of Representatives stayed in session past midnight to pass the virus response bill that provides for sick-leave pay, free testing, IRS tax credits and advance refunds for businesses plus free food for students deprived of free lunches by school closings. Forty Republicans voted against it.
Pence Saturday said that with Trump’s endorsement of the bill, just hours after he criticised it, he thinks the Senate will consider it carefully Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the House bill, “Senators will need to carefully review the version just passed.” He went on, “I believe the vast majority of senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families and small businesses.”
Pence said the latest congressional action reinforces the advice, “If you’re sick, stay home, you’re not going to miss a paycheck because of this legislation that’s moving through the Congress.”
Trump told reporters Saturday that, “I took the test” Friday night even though the White House physician issued a statement at five minutes before midnight saying he and the vice president did not need to be tested.
Trump said it could take a couple of days to get the results though new, expedited automated tests announced as available Friday can turn around tests within hours.
Trump indicated that even though he was shaking hands Friday with some of the 18 CEOs that accompanied him to his news conference, that breaking the habit would be a good idea.
“People come up to me, they shake hands, they put their hand out,” he said. “It’s sort of a natural reflex and we’re all getting out of it.”
Reporters attending the midday Saturday briefing had their temperatures taken for the first time and one, with an elevated temperature was not allowed to enter. Trump and Pence and other participants in the briefing also had their temperatures taken, now a routine procedure for anyone coming near the president.
The extension of the travel ban already imposed as of midnight on 28 countries to cover the UK and Ireland as of Monday midnight was widely anticipated since reports of increased virus spread there. The travel bans do not apply to American citizens and at one point they were advised they do not have to rush to find a flight back. Americans have to reenter through 13 specified airports and then self-quarantine for two weeks.
Trump went beyond the ban on foreigners to say he is considering unprecedented travel restrictions within the United States as well to isolate clusters of cases like those in the Seattle area and New Rochelle, NY, where National Guard personnel are helping disinfect and distribute food and medicine.
Is he considering domestic travel bans? “Yes, we are and we’re working with the states and we are considering other restrictions,” Trump said.
Corona Task Force response coordinator Deborah Birx told reporters in the Saturday briefing that just because someone tests negative for the virus doesn’t mean they couldn’t become positive the next day, so precautionary measures will be constantly necessary.
Younger people who have no symptoms, she said, could still be spreading virus to grandparents and other much more vulnerable seniors so need to be careful. There are signs that anyone with the virus can be contagious even before they show any symptoms, like a fever and dry cough.
Visits to nursing homes has been banned except for “end-of-life” situations. Restrictions have been lifted on the transfer of doctors and nurses across state lines to where they are needed.
Meanwhile, 47 staff members of the nursing home in the Seattle area that is the most intense epicentre of coronavirus in the country have tested positive.
Mnuchin said that once the Senate passes the House virus response bill as expected to happen Monday, the IRS will issue tax credits to affected businesses “that have cash flow problems”.
More details of government business support will be given at a 5 pm ET briefing Sunday, Mnuchin said, “You’ll be able to come to the IRS, get the money in advance so you don’t have cash flow issues.”
“We can now ramp up to 30 million masks a month,” Mnuchin added.
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who has already told hospitals to cancel elective surgeries, pleaded for cooperation at the briefing.
“We really need you all to lean into and prioritise the health and safety of the American people,” he said. “No more bickering, no more partisanship, no more criticism or finger pointing – they’ll be plenty of time for that.”
He added, “We all need to hit the reset button and lean into moving forward, the health and safety of the American people are their top priority.”
“Ninety-eight, 99 per cent of people will recover,” Adams said. “People need to know that.”